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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Detroit files biggest-ever US municipal bankruptcy

Published 18/07/2013 | 22:11

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A pedestrian walks by graffiti in downtown Detroit.
A pedestrian walks by graffiti in downtown Detroit.
Ilegally dumped tires sit in front of a vacant, blighted home in a once thriving neighborhood on the east side of Detroit, Michigan.
Ilegally dumped tires sit in front of a vacant, blighted home in a once thriving neighborhood on the east side of Detroit, Michigan.
Aerial photo is the city of Detroit
Aerial photo is the city of Detroit.

THE city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy yesterday, making it the largest-ever municipal bankruptcy in US history.

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In a letter accompanying the filing, Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder said he had approved a request from Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection saying "it is clear that the financial emergency in Detroit cannot be successfully addressed outside of such a filing, and it is the only reasonable alternative that is available."

Snyder, a Republican, appointed Orr in March to tackle the city's spiraling long-term debt, which is estimated at $18.5bn.

The former manufacturing powerhouse has seen its population fall to 700,000 from a peak of 1.8 million people in 1950. The city's government has been beset by corruption cases over the years. Waning investment in street lights and emergency services has left the city struggling to police the streets.

In June, Orr presented a proposal to creditors offering them pennies on the dollar. His plan had met with resistance from some creditors, most notably Detroit's two pension funds, which had recently filed lawsuits in a state court challenging Snyder's ability to authorize Orr to file for bankruptcy.

Some Detroit residents voiced skepticism on Thursday that the former U.S. manufacturing powerhouse would emerge in better shape from its historic bankruptcy filing designed to fix the city's financial crisis.

Hours after the news became known, residents spoke of the stark realities that come with living in a financially broken city.

"It was like putting a thumb in a dam," said Jodie Holmes, 55, as he leaned against an abandoned restaurant marked with graffiti, waiting for a bus to take him to his temporary job.

"I don't know if bankruptcy will help us or drop us to our knees," he added.

Detroit filed Chapter 9 bankruptcy in federal court on Thursday. The bankruptcy, if approved by a federal judge, would force Detroit's thousands of creditors into negotiations with the city's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, to resolve an estimated $18.5 billion in debt that has crippled Michigan's largest city.

Detroit was once synonymous with U.S. manufacturing prowess. Its automotive giants switched production to planes, tanks and munitions during World War Two, earning the city the nickname of the "Arsenal of Democracy."

Now a third of Detroit's 700,000 residents live in poverty and about a fifth are unemployed.

"Maybe bankruptcy will help. I don't know," said lifelong Detroiter Damien Collins, 68, outside his east-side house surrounded by abandoned homes.

The retired autoworker said he had given up hope anything would bring back Detroit.

"Nothing else has worked, so why not try it?" he asked.

Detroit's economic struggles have resulted in a deterioration of city life. The murder rate is the highest in nearly 40 years, only a third of its ambulances were in service in the first quarter of 2013 and nearly 78,000 abandoned buildings create "additional public safety problems," Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, wrote in a letter accompanying the filing.

Residents have also had to cope with a breakdown of services. Forty percent of street lights were non-functional in the first three months of this year, while the police took an average of 58 minutes to respond to emergency calls, more than five times the national average. The city government has also been plagued by mismanagement and political corruption.

"Detroit has a lot to offer, but we need a clean sweep of politicians," said Joanna Maslach, 30, a restaurant manager. "There's still too much corruption here. It's too dysfunctional."

Jim Fields, 37, who recently moved to a downtown loft from the suburbs, is one who believes the city is poised for a comeback. He is among a growing number of professionals moving to historic buildings converted into loft spaces.

"Bankruptcy hits the reset button," the software engineer said. "It's a golden opportunity to make this city right again. I'm very hopeful."

Reuters

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